The 5-2 start that has the Sixers atop the NBA's Atlantic Division has been better than could have been reasonably hoped for. The team is 3rd in the league in offensive rating, first in the league in defensive rating, and has the best point differential in the league. While the quality of opponents the Sixers have played has left something to be desired (they have a combined .407 winning percentage), with the teams first 5 games on the road the start has been a positive one. It took the team until its 18th game to get 5 wins last year.
One of the areas of concern, that has largely been masked by Spencer Hawes' tremendous play to start the season, is depth in the front court. Through the first 6 games of the season Hawes had been averaging 13.5 points, 11.8 rebounds on 65% from the field in just over 31 minutes per game, drastic increases over his previous years output. Last year, Hawes averages of 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 46.5% from the field in 21 minutes would have yielded approximately 10.2 points and 8.4 rebounds if extrapolated out to 31 minutes.
Hawes increased productivity allowed him to play significantly longer, making bench depth less of an issue. Last night, with the Sixers up only 3 points early in the third quarter, Hawes had a flair up in his back, determined to be a mid back strain.
Hawes said he could have returned, but Doug Collins talked him out of it. "Coach came over to me, he said that it's a long season, a compact season, so he didn't want to play me," Hawes said after the game. "At the time I wasn't really happy, but then when I sat down I could understand [the decision]."
"Spencer has a mid back strain," Collins informed the media after the game. "I was not going to play him [after that]. We've got 8 games in 11 nights, and I told him we're not going to do that."
Both Collins and Hawes sounded relatively optimistic that he would be able to go Monday, but it's no sure thing. If Hawes injury causes him to miss time, or if the injury limits his effectiveness, or even if he simply reverts to his previous levels of productivity, the Sixers may run into problems with depth in the front court. Particularly with Marreese Speights traded to Memphis, the Sixers are left with only Tony Battie and rookie Nikola Vucevic as natural centers. Which means, if Hawes misses time, Collins will either be forced to go small with Brand at the 5, start a rookie in Nikola Vucevic, or turn to Tony Battie, who will be turning 36 next month. None of those options are optimal, especially considering Battie and Vucevic had combined for around 43 minutes of game time total before last night, none of which were in close games.
Last night, however, may have assuaged some of the concerns over Vucevic if his role does need to expand substantially. The rookie played a very productive 20 minutes on the court, grabbin 10 rebounds to go along with 9 points, 2 assists, a steal and 2 blocks.
"Nik [Vucevic] gave us almost 20 minutes tonight, and I thought he was great", Collins said about the performance from his rookie. "He had 6 offensive rebounds, [and he made plays that] are plays that a guy inherently knows how to make when he knows how to play basketball. And Nik is a basketball player."
While 4 of the Sixers top 5 lineups last year in terms of plus/minus were with Brand at the center position and Thaddeus Young at the power forward, and in fact the beginnings of the 30-8 run that blew the game wide open last night was with that big man lineup, having to go to that lineup to start a game has been something Collins has been hesitant to do in the past, instead preferring to bring it in when the matchups are advantageous. Should Hawes miss any time, Collins will have a tough decision on his hands.
If there's one area where President Rod Thorn will have to focus on towards the trade deadline if he has serious playoff aspirations, big man depth is an obvious area of concern.
Video: Spencer Hawes speaking to the media discussing his injury after the game